How Are Bookies Managing With New Safety Measures & Are They Following The Rules?
Bookies had been chomping at the bit to get back to business throughout lockdown. The dearth in sporting events was limiting their online business dramatically but their high street shops were closed altogether, meaning zero income from those avenues.
They were officially allowed to re-open their physical stores from June 15th, but only if they were ‘covid secure’, which means they had to comply with safety measures such as social distancing, extra cleaning by the staff, and hand sanitiser available for customers, amongst other things.
Back in May I mused over what the betting shop experience might be like after lockdown was lifted, but I have now had a chance to find out for myself. But there are a lot of voices in this conversation and the experience can be different depending on who you are talking to and where you are betting.
Are Bookies Following the Rules?
The government has set guidelines that all betting shops must follow if they want to trade, or else they risk being fined or told to close their doors.
- 2 meter social distancing
- Providing hand sanitiser
- Wearing face masks
- Installing sneeze screens
There have been no widely reported incidences of any bookie flatly refusing to follow these guidelines and from my own personal experience I have seen all of the rules adhered to when I have been betting. You certainly can’t criticise the amount of signage they have all put up.
That said, the bookmaker can’t control the customer’s behaviour so social distancing doesn’t seem to be being taken very seriously, but that is also the case in supermarkets, high streets, and anywhere else you care to go in the UK.
Everything else is being followed by the letter though by all accounts.
Despite this, there has been criticism that betting shops have been allowed to re-open at all. Leader of the labour party, Keir Starmer, said it was “ridiculous” that betting shops were allowed to open while schools remained shut back in July.
The idea of going cashless to avoid the spread of the virus has been promoted country wide, but there have been no hard and fast rules set on this.
It is easy enough to do when paying for your shopping, but a little trickier when placing wagers and trying to keep track of your bankroll for the day, so it hasn’t been particularly popular with punters in betting shops aside from when using services like Coral Connect, for example.
Over at the race courses and there were some empty pitches at Goodwood when it first re-opened at the tail end of July, as concerns about cashless betting put most bookmakers off.
This was a rule imposed by Goodwood rather than a National instruction, and every time I have been to a bookie since they re-opened I have used cash to bet and to collect my winnings, so it’s not a rule that many others are setting and it’s easy to understand why.
It takes a lot longer to place a bet digitally, not to mention the potential for electronic devices to go wrong and stop working, and for racecourse bookies especially this would be a huge potential problem. Plus, it just feels good to use real cash sometimes doesn’t it?
Coronavirus Impact on Betting Shops
It goes without saying that the outbreak hit high street bookies squarely in the pocket, but to what extent has it caused damage and how long lasting is the impact?
The most obvious development to look at is William Hill closing 119 of their high street shops, or should I say they have decided not to bother re-opening them. The firm stated that footfall – which has been falling at high street bookies for years – is not expected to pick up to the same level as it was before the outbreak in some areas, and so those shops will remain closed for good.
That reads as terrible news for the company and the staff that worked at those shops, but in actuality most staff are being deployed elsewhere in the company and William Hill are so pleased with their performance in spite of covid-19 that they are voluntarily re-paying £24.5 million pounds in Government furlough money.
They have undoubtedly taken a financial pummelling but were clearly robust enough to weather it, and able to claw back some of that lost income in other areas too.
Punters’ migration online has helped plug the hole for all bookmakers with a high street presence, but it is a long way from plugging it completely.
GVC Holdings who own Ladbrokes and Coral reported a projected £50 million loss per month back in April, and attempted to cut costs by the same amount to combat this. Their high street revenue was down 50% on the first half of the year but their online activity kept them buoyant even seeing an 8% increase.
Share prices reflect this, with prices dropping to all time lows at the beginning of lockdown before climbing sharply again at the time of writing.
These examples demonstrate the general trend that, while high street bookmakers have lost out to the tune of millions and millions in unearned revenue, a combination of cutting costs and increased online income have kept them looking relatively healthy in the grand scheme of things, and well positioned to recover quickly.
Coronavirus Impact on Punters
Aside from sports bettors having much less to bet on for a while and nowhere to go to bet physically, has there been any sort of impact on the punter?
At the newly opened ‘covid secure’ bookie shops the impact seems to be minimal, certainly in my experience. Aside from following a few easy rules like wearing a mask and not eating or drinking in stores, the betting process is much the same.
You might have seen café’s and the like limiting the number of customers they can serve and taping off every other seat to maintain social distancing. Bookmakers do have limits as to how many people can be in the shop at once, but aside from plastic dividers between the machines and FOBT’s I haven’t personally seen any attempt to keep people from sitting next to each other apart from signage.
A lot of bookies have markings on the floor in an attempt to control the flow of customers but in my experience it may as well not be there at all. Even if people were willing to abide by them, who could understand this?
Regular gamblers seem to have been betting more during lockdown but trying new things, with bets on slots up 25%, poker up 38%, and virtual sports up by 40%, but this is unlikely to transfer back to high street bookies now they are open again.
Gambling Related Harm
The other kind of impact of course relates to responsible gambling. The potential for lockdown to send problem gambling figures through the roof was spotted immediately, and UK gambling companies ceased all TV and radio advertising while lockdown was in place, some even paid for the spots but replaced the ad with a responsible gambling message.
Nevertheless, in May the BBC reported that online casino searches were at an ‘all time high’, although this could be a result of sports bettors with nothing to bet on looking for an alternative.
The actual figures in relation to any changes in online gambling activity are minimal, with people gambling a little more overall but no recorded spike in problem gambling or people taking it up as a hobby who weren’t already doing so.
In the bookmakers shop, the need to wear a mask has an obvious effect on responsible gambling because anyone under age or who has self-excluded could hide beneath their mask, but staff have the right to ask customers to remove masks for identification purposes.